Saudi Arabia’s Widening War – Gary Sick/POLITICO Magazine
Obama is trying to make peace with Iran. The new Saudi king is on the course for war.
The level of turmoil in the Middle East is greater than at any other time in my nearly fifty years of watching this region. Amid this perfect storm comes the most dramatic shift in Saudi policy since at least World War II—marking a critical turning point in Saudi Arabia’s relations with its historical protector, the United States, and with its neighbors in the Middle East. The Saudi regime’s insistence on seeing threats to the Kingdom in fundamentally sectarian terms—Sunni vs. Shia—will put it increasingly at odds with its American patrons and could lead the Middle East into a conflict comparable to Europe’s Thirty Years War, a continent-wide civil war over religion that decimated an entire culture.
Driving the Saudi strategy is fear of Iranian regional hegemony. This wariness of Iran is nothing new, but, since the early days of the Clinton administration, Saudi Arabia has been able to rely on Washington to contain Iran. The United States surrounded Iran with its bases and troops, and imposed ever-increasing economic punishment on the Iranian revolutionary state. This policy began after the George H.W. Bush administration completed its brilliant military victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces, and as the Soviet Union was collapsing, leaving the United States as the sole military power in the Persian Gulf.
The Clinton administration had briefly considered balancing Iran or Iraq against the other as a way to maintain a degree of regional stability and to protect the smaller, oil-rich Arab states on the southern side of the Gulf. Policy of this sort had prevailed for the two decades prior to the Persian Gulf War. However, Martin Indyk, chief of Middle East policy at Clinton’s National Security Council, formally rejected this policy and announced a new “dual containment” policy. With Iraq boxed in by UN sanctions, and Iran nearly prostrate after eight years of war with Iraq, the United States had the “means to counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes,” declared Indyk. Now, he said, “we don’t need to rely on one to balance the other.”
The U.S. attempt to contain Iraq effectively ended when the Iraq War began. But the United States continued its containment strategy with Iran. This U.S. task became more difficult after the George W. Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and scattered the Taliban, Iran’s worst enemy to the east, and then attacked Saddam Hussein, Iran’s worst enemy to the west, and replaced him with a Shia government that was friendly to Iran. Although Iran’s contribution to this process was minimal, it became almost overnight the most influential state in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s regional influence continued to expand even as the United States applied ever-heavier sanctions.
Importantly, the US installation of a Shia government in Iraq also gave credence to the notion of an ongoing Iranian takeover of the Middle East and to the explanation of much of the turmoil that followed as a sectarian war inflamed by Iran. This perception has likely fed into Saudi Arabia’s momentous strategic reassessment.
President Obama is in the process of replacing the policy of containment with a policy of limited engagement with Iran. In effect, the United States has indicated that it will no longer be responsible for keeping Iran in “a box,” to use the metaphor Madeleine Albright applied to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This policy shift has attracted vociferous opposition from almost every regional state, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Countries in the region long ago grew accustomed to the U.S. acting as the regional sheriff, single-handedly ensuring that Iran remained isolated, politically neutralized and under pressure.
The Sunni Arab states of the region, ironically, adopted the rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning that Iran was actively seeking development of a nuclear weapon and that would potentially represent a threat to any state that opposed Iran’s actions in the region. Partly in response to such concerns, the United States pursued negotiations to cut off Iranian access to a nuclear weapon. To the surprise of almost everyone, that effort resulted in a detailed preliminary agreement in November 2013 and a formal declaration of the parameters of a final agreement in Lausanne on April 2, 2015. The drafting of the final agreement is well underway.
Although this prospective agreement would dramatically reduce the likelihood of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, the reaction to it from Israel and the Arab Gulf states has been close to hysteria. This reaction strongly suggests that the underlying concern of the Gulf states, and of Israel, was not really the danger of Iranian nuclear weapons, but rather the threat of Iran’s burgeoning political influence in the region, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and lately even to impoverished Yemen. Apparently the fear was that the relief from sanctions, along with Iran’s demonstration of skill in negotiating an agreement with the most powerful nations on earth, would enhance Iran’s political influence throughout the region.
Israel’s security elite has for the most part rejected Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cries of imminent peril, and the top Arab leaders of the Gulf apparently found reassurance in their recent meeting with President Obama at the White House and Camp David. In reality, neither the Arabs nor Israel has any practical alternative to alliance with the United States. Still, resistance to Obama’s policy shift remains very powerful in the U.S. Congress, in the Israeli leadership and in a skeptical Sunni Arab world that sees its interests and regional influence at risk in the face of an ascendant Iran.
Given the specter of a rising Iran, and a US shift from a policy of containment to partial engagement, it’s not surprising that Saudi Arabia would re-evaluate its foreign policy. But the speed of the strategic shift, and its magnitude, have been stunning.
For many decades, Saudi Arabia had played the classic role of a weak state with a single compelling resource—oil money. It cultivated powerful protectors and used its influence behind the scenes to promote outcomes that it could not hope to produce on its own. Saudi caution was legendary, and with a very few prominent exceptions it avoided taking the lead or putting itself out in front of controversial policies.
Indeed, the United States and many other countries owe a great deal to the sober and conscientious policies that Saudi Arabia has followed, particularly with regard to all-important oil policies. I’m sure that every serious Middle East observer could find examples of what they would regard as Saudi missteps or missed opportunities. But what other authoritarian state in that troubled region would you chose to manage a pool of resources with profound effect on every person and every economy in the world?
That quiet diligence appears to be vanishing after a change at the helm—the succession to the throne of King Salman and his installation of a notably young array of deputies and ministers. Within only the first three months of his reign, the new king has transformed the structure of the Saudi government and has resolved what most Saudi watchers considered the most complicated issue facing the Kingdom—how to make the leap from the old generation (the sons of the founding king) to the next generation. For the past 83 years, the Saudi crown has been passed from brother to brother rather than from father to son. King Salman, at 79, will likely be the last of his generation to rule.
The new crown prince, the King’s nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, is fifty-five and the deputy crown prince—the King’s favorite son Mohammed bin Salman—is about thirty. These two not only command the line of succession but also, via two new super-committees, are in charge of virtually every major institution in the Kingdom (with the key exception of the National Guard). The younger generation has gone almost instantly from being princes-in-waiting to controlling the main elements of power in the Kingdom.